In elementary school our music appreciation teacher taught us a Caribbean folk song called “Tingalayo”, which had the fetching lyrics, “My donkey walk, my donkey talk, my donkey eat with a knife and fork”. I loved the melody and the image of this clever and polite donkey stuck in my head and was quickly recalled when I started learning the Torah portion for my Bar Mitzvah and came to Bilaam’s talking donkey. The conversation between the prophet Bilaam and his donkey, who not only talks back but defeats him in argument, is one of my favorite tales in the Torah.
Of course, there is a long history of Rabbinic interpretation to invest this entertaining story with deeper significance. An early Rabbinic tradition claims that “the mouth of the donkey” was one of ten miracles created by God in the last light of the week of creation This interpretation seems to have a rationalist agenda—that the world generally follows the rules of nature, so miracle narratives in the Torah must be part of a limited set of “exceptions” programmed by God into the creation plan. A moral agenda is also present—this story teaches us that the power of speech is a gift from God, taken away at will and even granted to dumb creatures when called for; consequently, do not take it for granted.
Finally, there is an allegorical interpretation connected to the peculiar use of “Shalosh Regalim” in this narrative to refer to the “three times” that Bilaam beat his donkey. The rabbis could not resist associating “regalim” with its other usage to mean “pilgrimage festivals”. The Midrash Tanhuma sees a reproach aimed at Bilaam, noting: “How dare you seek to destroy a nation that celebrates the three festivals?” Later commentaries go further, finding hints at the specific festivals.
The Kli Y’kar (early 17th Century) observes that the first donkey incident occurs in the field—hinting at the festival of Sukkot with the harvest of fruits from the field. In the second, the donkey is in a vineyard—hinting at Passover. In the third it is a narrow place—hinting at Sinai since the Torah is surrounded by “longevity on her right, wealth and honor on her right” (Proverbs 3:16). How dare Bilaam challenge a people who honor God in these ways? Thus the walking, talking donkey is a messenger from God to enlighten Bilaam about the futility of his mission. Even Tingalayo couldn’t beat that! Allegorical interpretations notwithstanding, we can enjoy the story on a simpler level. Bilaam is a “Great Prophet” and is clearly full of himself. The story is a classic formulation of how the supposedly wise are really fools and the foolish are wise (the blind are perceptive, and the sighted can’t see and so on). Here the “seer” can’t see the threatening angel who is visible to his donkey; the “prophet” can’t defeat his own donkey in argument. Whatever the meaning, the effect is clear—Bilaam learns his lesson and proceeds to follow the orders of God, not his sponsor Balak, to bless Israel again and again. I love the scene of Balak clapping his hands in frustration as his sinister plans are utterly defeated. Or are they?
Alas, the story takes a dark turn at the end. From a scene of comic relief and disaster averted we find Israel encamped at Shittim, worshipping Baal Peor, engaging in sexual antics and generally spurning the authority of the Lord and Moses. This leads to internecine violence and a plague that wipes out 24,000 Israelites. So our story begins with a threat, then becomes a spoof and victory, and ends on a note of shame and despair. Not a Hollywood ending!
The talking donkey is a great set-up for the darker drama that follows and reminds us that both humor and heroism are required for all of us in the Jewish world. I will continue next week with Pinchas ending the plague, and you can decide for yourself if he is a hero or a vigilante.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham